Muggles can now especially reap the benefits of invisibility cloaks, at least while in the confines of their own homes. Google Earth, a free virtual globe comprised of geographic information and a patchwork of satellite and aerial imagery, contains a feature called Street View that displays high-quality images of streets, buildings, and people as they appear in public. While a user can virtually walk down a road using Street View and zoom in and out of images of people passing by, he himself remains invisible while in the privacy of his home. Once he steps out in public, however, he is shed of his invisibility cloak, and his actions are visible to those surrounding him, as well as to the millions of users on Google Earth. Anything done in public, whether it be casually walking down the road or committing a crime, is subject to the eyes of live witnesses, and is therefore subject to being displayed online. If a tourist legally has the right to photograph his surroundings and post them on the Internet, so does Google Earth.
The idea of always being in the public eye does cause discomfort for people who do not want to be photographed and displayed on Google Earth. A Street View user can essentially stare at a person for extended periods of time and from whichever angle he chooses; in real life, this type of behavior would not be socially acceptable. Social norms, however, are not grounds to determine legality. Although Street View may feel like an invasion of privacy to a photographed individual, Google has not actually violated any privacy laws, which “cling stubbornly to the principle that privacy cannot be invaded in or from a public place” (McClurg as cited in Kelley 2008, p. 208). Street View does not stream photos in real time, so nothing more than an instant is captured. Furthermore, Google has taken steps to appease these concerns by blurring faces and removing inappropriate images upon request, as seen in the following YouTube video: Street View: Behind the Scenes.
In light of the steps Google has taken to minimize the privacy concerns, we can now especially see that the benefits of Street View far outweigh the costs. With such comprehensive and high quality imagery, the software exposes users to more information about the world surrounding them, such as terrain, lighting, nearby activities, and parking possibilities, and also helps with crime solving and investigation (Segall 2010). While physically encompassing cities to observe terrain patterns and parking possibilities would be inefficient and maybe even impossible, a user can instantly obtain answers by simply flying to his desired location on Google Earth. Furthermore, with the introduction of Street View, Google’s Product Manager announced that, “the program is a vehicle to further enhance users’ ability to understand the world through images by viewing and navigating within 360-degree scenes of street-level imagery” (Chau as cited in Segall 2010, p. 25). By making this information available to the public, Google is promoting global awareness.
Street View will be a legally accepted public service as long as it continues to blur faces and remove inappropriate images. While individual privacy concerns are ethically sound, they are not legally justified, and the benefits of the software far outweigh the costs. Further, Google should continue to improve its product and innovate: “If we merely seek to preserve those activities and matters that have historically been considered private, then we fail to adapt to the changing realities of the modern world” (Solove as cited in Lavoie 2009, p. 612). Preventing Google Earth from innovating would be hindering technological advancement on a grand scale. Google Earth, and Street View in particular, are revolutionizing geographic technology and shrinking the vastness of the world.
Kelley, J. D. (2008). A Computer with a View Progress, Privacy, and Google. Brooklyn Law Review, 74, 187-230.
Lavoie, A. (2009). The Online Zoom Lens: Why Internet Street-level Mapping Technologies Demand Reconsideration of the Modern-day Tort Notion of “Public Privacy.” Georgia Law Review 43(2), 575-616.
Segall, J. (2010). Google Street View: Walking the line of privacy–Intrusion upon seclusion and publicity given to private facts in the digital age. University of Pittsburgh Journal of Technology Law & Policy, 10(1), 1-32.